Why You Shouldn’t Believe the “Earlier Mona Lisa” Hype

A second Mona Lisa? One made even earlier than the one hanging in the Louvre? It sounds almost too good to be true, and probably is. A Swiss-based organization calling itself The Mona Lisa Foundation launched a full-scale international media assault asserting that the painting formerly known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa is actually also by Leonardo da Vinci and is the long-presumed-lost “Earlier Mona Lisa” (detail shown above) alluded to in texts by Leonardo’s contemporaries. The idea that the most famous painting in the world suddenly has an older “sister” understandably sent a shockwave through not just the art world, but the world at large. But after the dust settles, the “Earlier Mona Lisa” is most likely neither earlier nor a Leonardo Lisa.

The Mona Lisa Foundation came into being in 2010 with the expressed mission of stating the case for taking this “Earlier Mona Lisa” seriously. Their website certainly impresses by its sheer size and depth. Subpages touting “Historical Evidence,” “Connoisseurship,” “Critical Comparisons,” “Physical & Scientific Examinations,” and “Provenance” seem to amount to a compelling case even before you click through them. If this is, as they claim, the culmination of 35 years of research, then maybe this really is the biggest art history story of the 21st century.

But take a little look closer and the cracks start to show. A closer look at the “Provenance” page—past the image-festooned timeline—will start you doubting. Yes, there are some references to a second painting in the writings of those who knew Leonardo, but nothing that suggests this painting is the one they’re talking about. The chain of evidence breaks completely for nearly a century and a half from 1590 through 1730 when, as the website explains, “[d]ue to turbulent times in Italy and France, no records of the painting’s whereabouts exist.” That’s a huge whole to cover over to make a convincing case. The timeline even marks the painting’s Wikipedia entry in 2002 as another “It must be true!” moment that falls short.

When they roll out a list of connoisseurs to support the case, it’s hard not to roll your eyes a bit. The key figure from this crew is Alessandro Vezzosi, Director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci in Vinci, Italy. “Alessandro Vezzosi is recognized as one of the most influential living experts on Leonardo da Vinci,” the foundation helpfully explains, “and arguably the leading authority on Mona Lisa.” Vezzosi certainly looks stern and studious in the accompanying picture, but I’d like to argue that the global go-to da Vinci scholar remains British art historian Martin Kemp, who expresses his doubts over the “Earlier Mona Lisaon his blog.

Kemp delivers a critical smack down of epic proportions on the Mona Lisa Foundation, whose media assault Kemp calls “an extraordinary bout of self-serving promotion.” Kemp admits that he hasn’t seen the painting in person, but he has viewed high-res images and, perhaps more importantly, read the book the foundation claims contains their airtight case. “I have not seen the painting in the original,” Kemp says, “but some things are so clear from the image and from their mish-mash of suppositions in the book that seeing the original is most unlikely to change my present conclusions.” Kemp calls the book “as physically impressive as it is historically slippery,” with “piles of unstable hypotheses, stacked one on another, [that] would not be acceptable from an undergraduate.”

Kemps flunks the foundation first on their tenuous use of the written sources, one of which mourned the end of da Vinci’s painting with the paralysis of the master’s right hand. Since Leonardo was left-handed, that source probably didn’t have the insider knowledge the foundation needs to credit him with to make their case.

Kemp boils down the scientific “evidence” to a claim that “that none of the evidence of scientific examination indicates that the Isleworth picture is not by Leonardo. Nor does it show that it is not by Raphael.” Such salesmanlike double-speak helps generate a cloud of doubt around the whole painting. For Kemp, perhaps the biggest strike against the painting being an original Leonardo is the lack of revisions revealed by the x-ray imaging. da Vinci famously worked and reworked his paintings. If this is the “earlier” painting, shouldn’t it have more, not fewer signs of changes than the “later” painting in the Louvre?

What seems to offend Kemp the most about the foundation’s claim is the poor quality of the painting itself. He offers seven points where the Isleworth work falls short, and says he could have listed more. “The head in the Isleworth picture has been conventionally prettified in stock direction of the standard Renaissance image of the ‘beloved lady,’” Kemp writes. It’s not a younger Mona, he believes. It’s a more boringly conventional idea of the beautiful—perhaps the surest sign that this painting’s a copy made by a more conventional, less revolutionary artist than Leonardo.

What is there to gain from calling this the “Earlier Mona Lisa”? Book sales? Exhibition revenue? Could this painting—holed away in a Swiss bank vault for the last 40 years—end up on the auction block? Would someone buy the hype enough to buy a painting allegedly linked to the most famous, most priceless piece of art on Earth? If the real Mona Lisa is priceless, what price would this work command? Records might fall, if someone with the financial means fell for the hype.

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.

    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.